South Pacific

Oct 27 2022 | By More

★★★★☆    Enchanted evening

Festival Theatre: Tue 25 – Sat 29 Oct 2022
Review by Martin Gray 

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific comes to the Festival Theatre for a week, bringing triumph, tragedy and a truckload of Broadway’s best tunes.

Younger Than Springtime, There is Nothin’ Like a Dame, Happy Talk, Some Enchanted Evening… if there’s a stage musical with a better suite of songs, I’ve yet to hear it. And the numbers are all superbly presented in Chichester Festival Theatre’s touring production, even if one or two are tweaked along the way.

The the Seabees chorus in South Pacific. Pic: Johan Persson

It’s 1943 and on an island in the South Pacific US navy men and nurses play their part in the theatre of war, hopeful that something will turn up to give the allies an advantage over the Japanese. Enter Lt Joe Cable, a marine sent to set up a reconnaissance mission on a nearby island occupied by the enemy.

He hopes local plantation owner Emil de Becque will join him behind enemy lines, his local knowledge making success more likely. Widower Emile, though, has fallen for Ensign Nellie Forbush, and doesn’t wish to risk his life when he’s finally found love.

Nellie is smitten, but shaken when she sees Emil’s children are half-Polynesian. As for Joe, he’s attracted to Liat, daughter of local trader Bloody Mary, but is shocked by how young she seems, and anyway, knows his mission must come first…

drama and fun

Inspired by James A Michener’s book Tales From the South Pacific, the musical is a heady mix of drama and fun – yes, it’s wartime, but morale had to be kept up and here we have the nurses and ‘Seabees’ collaborating on a Thanksgiving show.

The US flag backdrop makes for the most colourful moments in a surprisingly drab production design from Peter McKintosh. The dominant tones are beige for the island, grey for the barracks. A happy exception is the Bali Ha’i number, when lighting designer Howard Harrison lights the mystical isle with gorgeous blues and candlelight, with local girls dancing on a stage revolve.

Gina Beck (Nellie) and company in South Pacific. Pic: Johan Persson

If you like a revolve, this truly is the show for you. Someone came up with a concept and boy, do they stick with it. Nellie and Emile are on their date at his plantation – his balcony spins round. The nurses and Seabees jog across the beach – it’s in a circle on the moving platform. In every scene you wonder when the floor will start moving on this island apparently bedevilled by shifting tectonic plates.

What can’t be faulted are the performances. Gina Beck is in terrific voice as Nellie, selling the nurse’s small town charm and disappointing attitudes, while Julian Ovenden is pure charisma as man of the world Emile. OK, you can’t believe for a second they’d be smitten with one another – we see their eyes meet across a crowded revolve – but that’s the play.

fragility and elegance

Rob Houchen is a classic Joe, the all-American boy – his romance with Liat is established with dance, Bloody Mary’s daughter being not so much a character as a trophy. Sera Maehara wonderfully conveys Liat’s fragility and elegance in Ann Yea’s choreography, it’s just a shame she doesn’t have more to do.

It’s not as if director Daniel Evans isn’t willing to reinterpret the original material, with Bloody Mary’s caricature personality rotated a few degrees so that her keenness to get Liat together with Joe feels less problematically pimpy than usual. Joanna Ampil is stunning in the role, bringing real emotion to Happy Talk, musically rearranged to anticipate the tragedy of Liat’s infatuation with Joe. And the way she bewitches the Seabees with Bali Ha’i – they fall into a standing trance, open mouthed – is terrific.

Joanna Ampil (Bloody Mary) and Rob Houchen (Joe) in South Pacific. Pic: Johan Persson

The songs are masterpieces, from the character revealing A Cockeyed Optimist to the hilarious I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair to the heartbreaking This Nearly Was Mine.

Then there’s You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught, a commentary on racism so powerfully, so slyly on the nose that the original producers were petitioned to take it out of the show by politicians in America’s South; happily, Rodgers and Hammerstein told them where to stick their views. Houchen does the song justice, conveying the anger and frustration he feels over the world for which he’s fighting.

So far as happy highlights go, There is Nothin’ Like a Dame is unbeatable – it comes about ten minutes in, bringing a spark to proceedings after some understated scene setting. The show’s opening is actually a little weird – Liat dances, and is gradually circled by trotting, gun-toting Seabees. You get that it’s representational rather than literal, but it feels a tad menacing.

I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair lacks a little oomph – there are no on-stage bubbles, for goodness’ sake – but I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy is delightful, with Beck perfectly conveying Nellie’s girlish giddiness.

If you know and love South Pacific, you’ll enjoy this production. If you’ve never seen it, go – the Chichester Theatre gang make a pretty great fist of a hit-packed show whose message is still, sadly, very relevant today.

Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes (including one interval)
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson Street EH8 9FT.
Tue 25 – Sat 29 Oct 2022
Evenings: 7.30pm; Weds, Thurs, Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details:  Book here.

Sera Maehera as Liat in South Pacific. Pic: Johan Persson


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